ANOTHER PETITION on Change.org made the usual rounds this past week, this one urging the City of Savannah to preserve the old Seaboard Freight Station at 703 Louisville Road, aka the former home of Muse Arts Warehouse.
As an ardent advocate of historic preservation, and a proud alumnus of a production at Muse, I certainly appreciate the sentiment and wholeheartedly endorse any practical effort to save the building.
But as is the case with most online petitions, it might be too little, too late.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to discourage civic engagement. Far from it.
I’m urging more civic engagement, just much earlier, when it could actually have made a major difference.
This building changed hands, and Muse was kicked out, in late 2016/early 2017. Then the building was sold again, with the City selling a key surplus tract to the new developer this past November.
I hope to be proven wrong, but probably the only way now to stop or alter the development of 703 Louisville and the razing of the depot is if the developer makes a unilateral decision to bow to public opinion.
Public sentiment, strongly expressed, can change public policy. The City’s abandonment of the Fire Fee is the most recent example of a successful citizen revolt.
But as far as the old Seaboard depot is concerned, the time to get in the way of that plan was quite some time ago, when citizen pressure could have been a real game-changer. We’re now reduced to throwing a Hail Mary late in the game.
While it’s a bit ridiculous that City Council specifically insists on weighing in on each and every liquor license, and doing things like meticulously measuring the size of advertisements in a convenience store’s windows (true story), citizens can use a bit of jiu-jitsu to make that ridiculousness work for them.
If the City is willing to micromanage small business to such an absurd extent, perhaps we can demand that they also micromanage large developers.
In this case, that would mean trying to enforce a condition on the developer that the original bones of the depot be an integral part of their new design.
Mayor DeLoach has been correct in calling for remedying situations similar to what happened with the Seaboard depot: when one buyer secures a variance, then flips the property to a new developer with a new plan, variances staying intact.
But City Council places limitations on development all the time when it suits them, sometimes whimsically so. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
The difference comes when citizens are engaged early and often, to force them to do so for the right reasons.
SPEAKING OF POLITICIANS, the campaign season is already heating up, with several announcements that will affect the City elections later this year.
Detric Leggett announced that he will opt for a rematch with Bill Durrence — now an incumbent — for City Council’s Second District.
While the two men famously posed for a widely shared photo in a gesture of solidarity after Durrence’s victory in 2015, the party has soured since then, with some of Durrence’s critics saying that he forgot why he was elected and who elected him.
Community activist Alicia Miller Blakely will run for Alderperson At Large, Post Two, currently occupied by Brian Foster. (A previous version of this story identified the wrong At Large post.)
Linda Wilder Bryan and Larry Myers are set to take on incumbent John Hall in the Third District.
The highly controversial Sixth District alderman, Tony Thomas, will face at least two opponents, Kurtis Purtee and Sammy Strode. (Any serious attempt to unseat Thomas will depend on a minimal number of challengers, so as not to split the opposition vote.)
And an old name in Savannah politics, Regina Thomas, announced she is again running for Mayor of Savannah.
Thomas’s last bid was in the crowded 2011 field, out of which Edna Jackson eventually emerged triumphant.
Before that, Thomas had a successful tenure in the Georgia legislature as a Democratic Representative and State Senator.
Thomas’s well-known ability to bridge partisan divides is both a help and a hindrance — moderates and pragmatists will find her attractive, while staunch Democrats still have a hard time forgiving her for working closely with former Republican State Senate President Eric Johnson.
It’s going to be a big election year — and it’s just the second week in January, folks!
THE AMBITIOUS New Hampstead development came one step closer to reality last week, as City Council approved a zoning tweak to move the concept along.
New Hampstead will join other massive but largely unremarked new developments in West Chatham, such as the Highlands subdivision.
I think this paradigm shift — economically, culturally, geographically, and politically — might be the most underreported story of 2018.
The difference here is that New Hampstead will be its own Planned Unit Development (PUD), a legal designation allowing a wide range of inclusive multiple uses, including park facilities.
Generally, a PUD designation is good in that it allows more oversight of the plan in order to enhance specifically identified common needs, such as more affordable housing.
A PUD designation is not so good, however, in that it can encourage more sprawl, with diminished returns from the tax base since so much of the new residences will be covered by homestead tax exemptions.
As our Urbanist View columnist Jason Combs wrote back in June, this kind of planned sprawl directly affects the City’s ability to fund basic services, and leads to bad ideas like the now-defunct Fire Fee.
“There’s your chronic budget imbalance,” Combs wrote. “Too much low density ‘city’ that doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the infrastructure, services, and maintenance that it demands. Thus, the Fire Fee.”
This sprawl is all fueled, of course, by the City of Savannah’s unquenchable thirst to annex more and more of West Chatham.
It’s odd to see so much business in front of City Council these days coming out of the Pooler and Bloomingdale areas, but that’s how much the City of Savannah has expanded — with taxpayers on the hook to cover any unforeseen expenses.